Lana Payne has been elected as the new national president of Unifor, taking over the role five months after long-time leader Jerry Dias abruptly retired as head of Canada’s largest private sector union.
About 1,000 Unifor delegates, voting on behalf of locals across Canada, cast ballots at the union’s constitutional convention in Toronto on Aug. 10.
Payne, 56, becomes Unifor’s second president and first woman president. She defeated Scott Doherty, executive assistant to Unifor’s national president and Dave Cassidy, president of Local 444, which represents Stellantis and Caesars Windsor employees in Windsor, Ont., in two successive votes.
In the initial vote between all three candidates, none secured the 50 per cent majority required, with Payne earning about 46 per cent, Doherty 35 per cent and Cassidy 18 per cent. A runoff was held between Payne and Doherty to determine the new leader, which Payne won with about 61 per cent for the vote.
'THERE IS ONLY UNIFOR'
Addressing delegates following the voting, Payne said it was time for the union to “turn the page.”
“Starting today, there are no more campaigns. There are no us and them. There is only Unifor.”
The union represents about 315,000 workers across Canada, including 41,000 at auto assembly plants and parts suppliers. It was formed in 2013 following the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.
Until his retirement this March, Dias had spent 8 ½ years as the public face of Unifor, being elected to three three-year terms as president. Yet allegations made about Dias’s conduct by the union’s National Executive Board (NEB) following his abrupt retirement have kept the labour organization off balance for months.
On March 23, the NEB accused Dias of violating the union’s constitution, alleging he accepted $50,000 from a supplier of COVID-19 test kits he had helped promote to union employers. Dias said he was entering rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse the same day.
Payne entered the presidential contest in April, calling for new accountability measures, a more transparent approach to union decision-making and renewed focus on local input at the national level.
A Deer Lake, Nfld. native, Payne started her career in labour with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, then affiliated with the CAW. She served two terms as Unifor’s Atlantic director before being elected to the post of secretary-treasurer at the union’s 2019 convention. Along with tracking union finances in her most recent position, she also oversaw the months-long investigation of Dias.
DIAS HEARING WILL GO AHEAD
Yet as Payne takes up her new post, the Dias investigation is not wholly in the past. The NEB still plans to carry out a hearing into its allegations against Dias. Initially planned for the spring, the hearing was postponed because of the former leader’s health.
Payne told Automotive News Canada that conducting the hearing would be among the laundry list of issues the union’s leadership will tackle in the “coming weeks or months.”
“We’ll deal with that with everything else that we’ve got on our plate.”
Most of Payne’s other priorities focus on moving past the Dias era. She and her team have developed an 11-point plan for her first 100 days as Unifor president. Among other key changes, she plans to re-engage with union locals, bringing a different brand of leadership to the role than Dias did.
When asked to compare her leadership to that of Dias, she said: "I'll be spending a lot more time with members and with locals. One-on-one, in small groups, big groups, I think that's important."
Payne said building up locals is a priority.
When it comes to auto bargaining, she said nothing needs to change.
"What we've been doing so far has worked and if there was going to be a change, I'd take the recommendation from our bargaining committees if they want to do something different,” she said. “That's the kind of leader I am ... I think it's important to empower our members to make decisions and we'll sit down together and decide what that looks like going forward"
Payne also plans to capitalize on what she called an “organizing moment” to build out Unifor’s ranks.
“I think there’s a moment in most sectors right now to organize. There’s an incredible new militancy among working people around the globe.”
In both the auto sector and beyond, Unifor will be putting its “strong” organizing fund to work, she added.